If Julian Fellowes’ aim in creating a musical version of Kenneth Grahame’s much-loved 1908 story was to evoke the beauty of the English seasons and the value of friendship, then he has succeeded admirably. This is a marvellous willowy wallow in Edwardian nostalgia. Oh, and the tunes are pretty good as well.
This charming two-and-a-half-hour show is an utterly transportive voyage into the world of Ratty, Mole, Badger and the irrepressible Mr Toad. It’s pretty lavish, too. The stage is framed by some lovely willow branches that drape leaves over a bright and colourful set in the clement months, and are washed with the richer hues of autumn and the stark whiteness of winter later on. Little expense has been spared – we also get a life-size train, a river barge and exquisite homes for Toad, Mole and Badger.
Craig Mather as Mole and Simon Lipkin as Ratty; above: Rufus Hound as Mr Toad (photographs by Marc Brenner and Darren Bell)
Mr Toad was missing on the night I attended, however; Rufus Hound had been struck down by illness and replaced by Chris Aukett who did an excellent job, roaring his way through the evening, poop-pooping in his car and singing his songs with gusto.
There are some great tunes by George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drew (lyrics). Mr Mole, Rat and Badger’s A Friend is Still a Friend is one of the best, but the pick is probably the weasels and Wild Wooders’ foot-tapping number Taking over the Hall.
The interplay between Simon Lipkin’s Rat and Craig Mather’s Mole was charm itself and their song about messing about in a boat was simply lovely. I was also hugely impressed by Gary Wilmot’s Badger who managed to convey the animal’s decency and delicacy while never letting us forget that he is also feared and respected.
The evening takes us through a calendar year in the animals’ lives, from the hopeful spring to autumn and winter when Mr Toad’s speed-hungry antics land him in trouble and the wicked stoats, weasels and badgers take over Toad Hall – the Downton Abbey of the animal world if you like.
The musical ‘book’ is written by Fellowes and if I had a gripe, it is that the Downton Abbey writer imposes his rather patrician view about the natural order of things. The weasels, stoats and badgers have a spivviness about them, a sense that they are uppity proles daring to take over the manor house.
During one dance they hungrily wave a knife and fork and I couldn’t help wondering if Fellowes had them hold it in the wrong way, or at least in a manner that would have made Maggie Smith’s Dowager Duchess splutter into her soup.
But even the toffs of Downton knew the value of sticking by your friends even when they test your patience, and that is what this lovely night is all about in the end.
The Wind in the Willows is at the London Palladium until September 9